Fine Furniture in Bloom
FURNITURE DESIGN – July 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Five Maine craftsmen fill Boothbay’s Botanical Gardens
Maine has a long been the home of numerous small, craftsman-owned woodworking shops that produce custom furniture of exceptional quality. But since the tables, chairs, and desks made in these shops often disappear into private homes, many of us never get a chance to see some of the state’s most beautifully crafted furniture. Custom-made furniture for public spaces has become something of a rarity these days, but Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay was able to outfit its new visitor’s center with Maine-made furniture thanks to efforts of five talented craftsmen.
The “Buy Local” Plan
Kevin Rodel has been a woodworker in Maine since the late 1970s. Today, he is an elder statesman in Maine’s thriving woodworking scene and something of a furniture Renaissance man: he designs, builds, teaches, and even writes (Rodel co-authored the award-winning book Arts & Crafts Furniture: From Classic to Contemporary, which was published by Taunton Press in 2003). Last year, on a whim, Rodel drove up the coast from his shop in Pownal to visit the Botanical Gardens for the first time. “It was a perfect, crisp, sunny autumn day,” he still remembers.
Rodel’s only plan was to wander the garden paths that afternoon, but that all changed when he laid his eyes on the sparse elegance of the newly built visitor’s center. Rodel contacted the organization that manages the Gardens to inquire if they might be interested in one of his benches for the center’s grand Kerr Hall. A meeting to discuss the proposal quickly evolved, and before he knew it Rodel had agreed to design and build furnishings not only for the main hall, but also for the cafe, library, and gift shop. A passionate advocate of the “form follows function” philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rodel was thrilled by the opportunity to design furniture for a collection of public spaces with such evident potential.
Before the machines of the Industrial Revolution made it possible to churn out inexpensive, mass-produced furniture, public spaces were once filled exclusively with handmade furnishings. Rodel believes that custom-designed furniture, even in a world of low-priced options, need not be viewed as an extravagance. “If we use local craftsmen,” he says, “we can actually get more furniture for our dollar than if we buy manufactured furniture from a big, commercial supplier.”
When it came time to actually build his designs for the Botanical Gardens, Rodel simply reached out to the colleagues, former students, and friends he had come to know during his years of teaching at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. “The state of Maine has this wonderful source of furniture craftsmen,” Rodel says.
When Rodel began designing tables for the airy, multi-windowed cafe, he decided to incorporate an element that he often leaves out of his more-traditional furniture designs: paint. “I really wanted to experiment with color in the cafe,” Rodel says. “I wanted to bring the bright flowers from outside right into the room.” A durable, wood-toned composite was used for the tabletops, but the soft maple bases of the cafe tables are painted a muted green with bold stripes of flowery purples, yellows, and pinks. To help keep costs down, Rodel ordered commercially made chairs from a supplier and used them throughout the visitor’s center.
Furniture-maker Eric Hurt built all of the tables, as well as the cafe’s elegant lattice-fronted service stations. Though he never had Rodel as a teacher, Hurt attended the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and spent time there as an artist-in-residence. Calling Rodel’s designs “Arts and Crafts with a flare,” Hurt says he was thrilled by the opportunity to work with Rodel. “Kevin has been a real influence on me,” says Hurt, who works out of a shop in South Portland, “and to build his designs for a public space where so many people will see them has been an awesome experience.”
As he came up with designs for the combination library and meeting room, Rodel sought to create a “quieter, more academic” tone. Bored by the monotony of public spaces that are filled with dark, heavily varnished furnishings, Rodel used bright native ash for the space. Rodel asked a fellow teacher, Timothy Rousseau, to build the room’s elaborate desk, which features dovetail joinery in the built-in shelving and botanical-themed tiles made by Antiquity Tile of Hampden.
Rousseau, who works out of his own shop in Appleton when he’s not teaching, says the decision to work on the Botanical Gardens project was an easy one. “Not only was I immediately sold on building one of Kevin’s designs,” he says, “I was also sold on the idea of working with the Gardens.” While Rousseau’s own designs are more contemporary and Danish-influenced, he says it was professionally gratifying to collaborate with Rodel. “Since Kevin has so much experience in the workshop, his designs are sensitive to what it takes to actually build the piece.”
The design of the desk is echoed in the library’s two large worktables, which were intentionally designed to form a conference table when pushed together. Austin Matheson, another one of Rodel’s teaching colleagues, constructed the tables. Working in the Arts and Crafts style was also a departure for Matheson, who usually specializes in the historical furniture style known as Colonial West Indian. Though the furniture he creates in his Camden shop often includes intricate inlays and curvaceous legs, Matheson says he appreciates the simple lines of Rodel’s designs. “Kevin’s work is the sort of furniture I’d like to fill my own house with someday,” he muses.
“The gift shop was the most difficult space for me to design,” Rodel says, noting that he was hemmed in by two necessities—the need to create as much shelving and display space as possible and the equally important need to keep the project on budget. He eventually resolved the dilemma by integrating commercial cabinetry with custom woodworking.
Through a friend at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, Rodel tracked down Eric Koehler of Koehler Woodworks in Brunswick, and asked him to essentially “dress up” some commercial shelving. Koehler has 28 years of experience with architectural woodworking and builds custom kitchens, libraries, and all manner of cabinetry at his shop. Working from Rodel’s design, Koehler connected the gift shop’s shelving with an intricately tiered trellis made from poplar. Bathed in the same mellow green paint used throughout the visitor’s center, the trellis visually connects the gift shop to the large pergola just outside its windows. “Again, like the cafe tables,” Rodel says, “it brings the gardens inside.”
“I got to soften the edges, so to speak, on the shelving that Kevin tracked down,” Koehler says with a smile. Koehler’s real woodworking talents are perhaps better exemplified in the gorgeous mahogany gates he built for the entrance to the visitor’s center.
In the end, all the “extravagant” custom-made furniture actually came in under budget and cost less than if the Botanical Gardens had purchased only off-the-shelf, commercially made furniture. “This project worked,” Rodel says, “because the guys and I really supported the concept and philosophy behind the Botanical Gardens.” A nonprofit organization run by a volunteer board of directors, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has inspired devotion from the beginning—some of its founding members used their own homes as collateral on the initial purchase of 128 acres of land. Today, with its sprawling ornamental gardens, miles of walking trails, 3,600 feet of saltwater frontage, and a recent donation of another 120 acres, it’s the largest botanical garden in New England.
And what happened to the bench that Rodel initially thought would be a good fit for the visitor’s center? Well, that made it into the budget, too. Eric Hurt built the bench, which today sits in Kerr Hall. Guests will likely use that bench more than anything else Rodel designed, and it is undoubtedly the most striking and elaborate piece of furniture in the entire building.
“Life only offers these opportunities every now and then,” Rodel says of the Botanical Gardens project, “and you just have to go with them.